To call Malaysia a dictatorship would be an insult to the millions who had to live under the likes of Stalin, Pol Pot, Marcos and Suharto. But the peculiar aspect of Malaysia's illiberal democracy (to use a phrase that Rustam Sani either coined or popularised) is to be confronted by small bits of dehumanisation on a regular basis.
I was manning a booth at the Bar Council this morning, to make up the numbers. After all, the crowd shouldn't have consisted solely of lawyers, activists and undercover cops! It was, also, a festival to celebrate human rights – an inconclusive and sometimes maligned concept, true, but which should include the basic right to assemble peacefully.
And it was a peaceful gathering, despite the Falun Gong activists' loud propaganda machine just next to me. But right from the start, the police made their presence very much felt. I've never had cause to be angry at the police. They are, as the saying goes, just doing their job. But shouldn't their job involve better things than snooping around, taking surreptitious photographs and telling people to disperse? How many crimes can be solved with greater speed if these very same men and women in blue (or in plainclothes) were to instead get cracking on them?
I've never been a demonstrator type. The banal truth is, I simply don't like to be part of a huge crowd; I don't even attend concerts. In fact, the only real demo I have ever taken part in was in a foreign country, where I was shocked to see the authorities actually cooperating rather than being intimidating.
Watching the spirited and principled young lawyer Edmund Bon (left) getting taken away by a swarm of blue, simply for refusing to take down banners, left me with a feeling of sadness. For some reason I couldn't quite summon outrage, but it was indeed sad to see that we have come to this.
A student at an MMU screening of The Big Durian a few days ago asked me what a 'perfect government' would be like. I daresay that since governments are composed of imperfect human beings, there will never be a perfect government. The very quest or presumption of perfection is fascist. But there can be a much better system of checks and balances; for each of these imperfect institutions – the executive, legislature, judiciary, police force, media, civil society – to then create, through negotiation, a system that allows for not just stability but difference. Stability without difference is inertia. And how can we move forward from inertia?
The weather was gloomy this Sunday but it did not quite rain. Those who commit the literary sin of pathetic fallacy will not be able to say that the sky cried. There were no tears, of the real or allegorical variety. But there was a sigh – if you cared to listen.
* Photos by SN.